The appeals and perils of symbolism

STATUE IN Washington. D.C. of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima in 1945 (National Park Service)

Who are you? Are you simply the sum of your allegiances, fears, desires and experiences? Are you defined exclusively by your class, your race, your clan, and your profession or whom you love or hate?

We live in an era of identity politics in which the tendency is to divide into tribes and view too many issues through the lens of our own interests. There’s an “us vs. them” mindset which makes a spirit of “all for one and one for all” nearly impossible.

I am among the worst offenders.  Skipping politics for a moment, I am loyal to a ridiculous fault to certain products and brands. Jim refuses to buy a foreign car, even if it was assembled in Tennessee. He will never buy Cheese Nips over Cheez-Its and held a lodge of sorrow when Marilyn insisted on no longer buying Scot toilet tissue.

My loyalties have some logic, but a lot of them wander off into the weeds because some of them aren’t good ideas, but I pronounce them good because they’re my ideas, or ideas I have adopted.

But the world is full of complications, subtleties and contradictions.  Cutting the Gordian knot is all well and good, but few issues have only one side to them. Three or four is more common.

This was all on my mind when attending Tuesday night’s meeting of the Garden Grove City Council. As reported in The Trib, the council deadlocked three to three (with one member absent) on a proposal by Councilmember Kim Nguyen to fly the rainbow “Gay Pride” flag at City Hall.

Aside from the fact that there actually is no flagpole at City Hall – the alternative would be to display it along with other flags in the lobby – the aspects of this somewhat emotional clash of culture that caught my eyes and ears were these.

Much of the opposition to the idea came from those who felt that allowing the display of the rainbow flag would single out for benefit one group over others, and might expose the city to demands from other groups wanting space on the flagpole (or in the lobby).

One of those with that view was Councilmember Phat Bui. A fair enough point, but Mr. Bui has been a leader in advocating for displays that center on the Vietnamese community and the now-defunct Republic of Vietnam.

In 2017, he urged the placing of a memorial in Garden Grove Park honoring six South Vietnamese officers who committed suicide rather live under Communist rule after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

It struck a lot of people as a bit odd. Honor suicides? It’s one thing to die fighting, but … The other argument against it was that such a display would lead to other groups and nationalities pushing for their own monuments, and how could you say no to them?

The project stalled and died, but was then advocated for Westminster by Mayor Tri Ta. It hasn’t made much progress there, but there are plans for more memorials to Vietnamese military in that city in Sid Goldstein Freedom Park.

The contradiction is obvious. If the rainbow flag idea was problematic, so was the memorial.

At one point, someone suggested that the flag that represented freedom for gay people – and all Americans – was the Stars and Stripes, to which at least one member of the audience shouted “no, it’s not!”

That woke me up. Did that speaker really mean to say that he or she had no liberties, freedoms or rights in America as long as some people still held prejudices or wouldn’t authorize the display of a certain flag on public property?

The history of the world is littered with hatreds, blood feuds, tyranny and mass killings. No nation in the world has done more to root those out by creating the planet’s first mass democracy, starting the decline of colonialism and defeating the terrors of fascism and communism, than the United States.

The Stonewall Inn Riots in 1969 in New York City are credited with starting the world-wide gay rights movement. It is under the inspiration of that flag and the constitution it represents that people of all sexual orientations can marry, serve in the military and live fuller lives than ever before. All this at a time when there are still many places – maybe even most places across the globe – where declaring your sexuality could be an invitation to be garroted or beheaded in the public plaza.

Life and liberty are always a work in progress. Someday Vietnam will be free. And someday being LGBT will be no more controversial than being a White Sox fan in Chicago. Symbols can be comforting but they still leave most of the heavy lifting to be done. Don’t confuse the apple with the blossom.

Jim Tortolano’s Retorts is posted weekly on Wednesdays. Usually.



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